Deir Al Ahmar, Lebanon               23.07.2015


With the support of Aid to the Church in Need Catholic nuns in Lebanon are helping Syrian refugees – and are banishing the shadows of the past

By Oliver Maksan

Clusters of tents erected on open land stretch out across the Bekaa plain. Plastic sheets drawn over wooden and iron frames: these are the new homes for tens of thousands of people. Nowhere is the Syrian war as close as here in East Lebanon. The Lebanese army and IS terrorists already engaged in fierce fighting in the area last year. Lebanon is top of the list of areas which ISIS wants to incorporate in the Islamic caliphate which they have set up in parts of Syria and Iraq. From the Christian town of Deir al Ahmar it’s only a few kilometres to Syria. The war-torn country lies behind the high, snow-covered mountains. Tens of thousands of Syrian war refugees have sought refuge in this area, camping in tents on the vast, fertile plain. Bumpy dirt tracks – when it rains small lakes form in the potholes – lead to one of the ten camps which have been set up around Deir Al Ahmar.

“In the winter it was of course very cold,” a young woman complains. She has seven children. “The snow was piled high and the wind blew mercilessly. It wasn’t easy.” The families who live here are all Sunni Muslims. These come from Raqqa, the East Syrian city which has been a stronghold of the Islamic terrorist group ISIS for a number of years. “We lived under ISIS,” a man says, agitatedly. “They’re not Muslims. They’re criminals. Our women had to completely veil themselves. We men were no longer allowed to smoke. They control everything.” A woman in the tent says: “We knew God before ISIS. They don’t need to explain anything to us.” They had fled from ISIS and the war in Syria to Lebanon a few months before. They were able to take hardly anything with them. Their distress is therefore great. They are all deeply grateful for what Sister Micheline and her helpers are doing for them. The Catholic nun has set up an aid centre for the refugees with the help of Aid to the Church in Need. “God bless Sister Micheline,” says one woman. Sister Micheline makes a gesture of dismissal. “What was I supposed to do? In the middle of winter 2011 I suddenly had more than 150 people, some wearing only sandals, standing in the deep snow at my door. As a member of the Order of the Good Shepherd I couldn’t possibly send them away?” She decided to help. More than 800 Syrian families in the area are currently being supplied with food, clothing or mattresses.

Sister Micheline is supported by Raed (name changed for security reasons). For four years this fifty-year-old Christian has dedicated his energies to the refugees. It’s by no means obvious that he would do this. “I used to shoot at Syrians. Now I’m helping them,” he says. “I was a fighter against the Syrian occupation of Lebanon.” He points to his body, which was seriously wounded in earlier battles. Only in 2005 did the Syrian army of occupation withdraw from Lebanon. “The Syrian army did terrible things here. We defended ourselves and our homeland. I always saw the Syrians as my enemy. But when the refugees arrived, I looked at their faces and realised that they are humans like me. They need my help,” Raed explains. He was especially impressed by Sister Micheline’s example. “I saw how the sister looked at the people. This convinced me without the need for big words. I realised that the Syrian regime was my enemy, not the people.”

Sister Micheline makes a plea for understanding. “You have to realise that this area suffered considerably as a result of the Lebanese civil war and the Syrian occupation. There were tensions both with the Shiites and with the Syrian army of occupation. Many Christians therefore left. Whole Christian villages were abandoned. To improve life a little my order decided in 2005 to open up a centre to support native Christians here, and especially the children. We offered and continue to offer not only catechetical instruction, but also homework courses and leisure activities. People have responded enthusiastically. It’s important that the children get out of their houses. Throughout the winter, which is very long here, they all sit in one room and get on one another’s nerves. Then the Syrians suddenly came. The people again thought someone was going to take something away from them.”

During the civil war from 1975 to 1990 and up to the withdrawal of the Syrians from Lebanon in 2005, 300 adolescents and young men from the town were killed in battles with the Syrians, the sister explains. “The people haven’t forgotten that. They say: Why should we help them? We don’t exactly have it easy ourselves,” Sister Micheline says. In the beginning it had therefore been very difficult to explain to the people why the Syrians were being helped. This situation had improved a little in the meantime, the nun believes. “The people in the village are slowly beginning to give up their reluctance. I tell them that we, as Christians, must not live in the spirit of revenge, but have to forgive.” She is happy that her work is bearing fruit. And the refugees are also making an effort. “Two Syrian boys, both Muslims, reported to me how they had once worked up the courage to approach some Christian boys and talk with them a little. They certainly didn’t find this easy to do. Showing respect for others and taking the first step are crucial factors here.” But Sister Micheline not only attempts to get this Christian message across to the children. “We offer manicure courses to enable the women to earn a little extra. This means that Christian women from the village met Syrian refugee women. This also helps to break down prejudices.”

Sister Micheline is not only worried about the immediate needs of the people. “At some time the war will be over. And what then? How can the people live together again after all that’s happened in Syria? There’s a need for reconciliation, education and prospects. There’s nothing worse than watching a lost generation grow up.” Sister Micheline therefore sets great store by education. In the morning 350 Syrian children attend school and are given a warm meal. “The parents are so grateful. It gives them a feeling of normality. The need is much greater. Unfortunately we don’t have sufficient resources. But in the summer we are organising a holiday camp. This will be able to accommodate all the refugee children.”

Oliver Maksan.